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3 things to watch for in Pence-Harris vice presidential debate

Newsday's Faith Jessie and White House correspondent Laura Figueroa Hernandez preview tonight's high-profile vice presidential debate. Credit: Newsday / Reece T. Williams

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, separated by a plexiglass barrier and sitting 12 feet apart, will square-off Wednesday for the highly anticipated first and only vice presidential debate of the campaign season. The matchup comes after President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and a chaotic first presidential debate last week.

Vice presidential debates have historically drawn fewer viewers than the trio of presidential debates, but political analysts are anticipating increased interest after Trump was hospitalized with the coronavirus three-days after the first presidential debate.

Harris (D-California), former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate on the Democratic ticket, and Pence will debate for 90-minutes on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City. At the Biden campaign’s request, the candidates will sit 12 feet apart instead of 7 feet apart as initially planned, and be separated by a plastic barrier as a preventive measure, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan panel that organizes the debates.

Event organizers have said only 200 guests will be allowed inside of the 2,000 seat venue, and mask wearing will be strictly enforced after Trump’s family and aides refused to wear masks inside of the Cleveland debate hall.

"Whatever impact the vice presidential debate was likely to have on the presidential race or the VP candidates’ own career promotion just increased exponentially," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s Center for Suburban Studies. "Given everything that has transpired in the past few weeks, including the presidential debate and especially Trump’s infection and possibly his infecting others, public interest is likely to soar. That Pence was publicly in charge of the White House anti-pandemic efforts only adds to the appeal of the confrontation."

Here are three things to watch for on Wednesday night.

Will there be a change in tone after the chaotic first presidential debate?

The calls for decorum and a change to the debate’s rules were swift as the combative presidential debate played out with Trump constantly interrupting Biden and challenging moderator Chris Wallace.

Most of the post-debate focus groups and polling indicate a desire among voters for the campaigns to discuss the issues and explain their vision for the next four years, said John P. Koch, director of debate at Vanderbilt University.

"This debate then is an opportunity, which was lost last week, to speak directly to voters and ask for their vote," Koch said. "Given the president’s diagnosis has taken him off the campaign trail, the stakes in this debate may now be higher for Pence. He likely needs to utilize the debate to reset the campaign after the events of the last week. One way to do that would be to set the tone in the debate by directly addressing the questions, focusing on campaign issues and themes, and drawing contrasts with the Biden-Harris ticket. The stakes are likely not as high for Harris, since the Biden-Harris campaign has proceeded as planned this last week, but I expect her to do much of the same."

A pair of national polls conducted after the debates, but before Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, show the first presidential debate helped widen Biden’s lead.

An NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll found 53% of a sample of 800 registered voters polled said they would vote for Biden, compared with 39% for Trump. The poll was conducted between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Swing state voters in Pennsylvania and Florida also gave an edge to Biden in a post-debate poll conducted by the New York Times and Siena College. The poll of 1,416 likely voters across both battleground states found 65% disapproved of Trump’s conduct at the debate, and 48% said they "support Trump less after" the debate. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points in Florida, and 4.1 percentage points in Pennsylvania.

"Vice-presidential debates historically tend to be more aggressive, such as Cheney-Edwards and Biden-Ryan," Koch said. "While this debate is unlikely to be more aggressive in tone than last week’s presidential debate, it may be more aggressive in discussing and contrasting the campaign’s positions on issues."

How will the candidates address Trump’s coronavirus infection?

Pence, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has stayed out of view since Trump announced in a tweet that he was infected with the coronavirus.

The debate will serve as the first opportunity for Pence to publicly weigh in on Trump’s infection and the COVID-19 outbreak among more than two dozen Republican supporters, lawmakers, White House aides and White House journalists who were in close proximity to the president.

Except for a tweet sending well wishes to Trump and first lady Melania Trump, Pence has not publicly commented on the positive coronavirus infections emanating from the White House.

He will likely try to steer the discussion back to Trump’s attempt to cast himself as the "law and order" candidate, doing so against Harris, a former criminal prosecutor and ex-California state attorney general, Levy said.

"Where Pence will try to go on the offensive with law and order, you can expect Harris to hammer him on COVID and other health and economic issues," Levy said. "In a particular appeal to suburban women, you can expect Harris to be aggressive on social issues that have separated moderate suburbanites from the party for a couple of decades — abortion rights, gay rights, environmental protection, funding for public education."

Levy added: "It also will be interesting to see if unlike Trump, Pence does try to make some sort of pivot to moderate suburbanites or if he will continue to pursue the tactic of winning only with the base."

Who will be the most effective messenger for their campaign?

Pence and Harris are both regarded as skilled debaters and dutiful defenders of their running mates.

Pence, who spent decades as a conservative radio host before entering politics, won plaudits for his steady 2016 performance against then-Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia).

Harris, who in addition to leading the California attorney general’s offce, served as San Francisco district attorney before she was elected to the Senate in 2016. She has built a reputation for her methodical questioning on Capitol Hill. Video clips of her questioning of Attorney General William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings went viral on social media.

"I think she is a skilled debater," Pence said of Harris in an August interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. "But I can’t wait to get to Salt Lake City and be on the stage with her — to compare Joe Biden’s nearly 50 years in public life … with the results of this president and this administration."

Pete Buttigieg, who also ran in the crowded Democratic presidential primary, and has since been helping Harris with debate prep, serving as a stand-in for Pence, acknowledged the current vice president’s public speaking skills during an interview with Fox News last month.

"So on the issues he’s in a tough spot, but I’ll also say he’s obviously an effective politician and an effective debater," Buttigieg said. "That’s part of why he is where he is."

The vice presidential debate

When: Wednesday from 9 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Where: University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Moderator: Susan Page, USA Today Washington bureau chief

Format: Nine segments of 10 minutes each that the moderator will chose

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